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Do Less, So They Can Do More

Whether an individual is 2 years old or 42 years old, and wherever they lie on the autism spectrum, a simple but important strategy for encouraging communication, teaching skills, and promoting independence is “do less, so they can do more.”

We know that individuals with autism often need repeated opportunities to master a skill. We also know that individuals with autism need more time to process verbal instruction before they take action. Sometimes, it is hard for us not to just jump in and complete the task for them. This strategy of doing less so they can do more may take more time today and tomorrow, but the time invested is worth it if we reach the goal of supporting individuals with autism to become great communicators and independent adults with fulfilling lives.

While this strategy is important for all of the skills that our individuals are learning, I am going to focus below on communication and life skills.


Encouraging communication

When an individual lacks functional communication, the people in their life often guess what that individual needs or wants and provide it in the absence of any communicative act. This eliminates the opportunity for that individual to communicate with intent.

For example, when John comes home from school, you know that he always wants his favorite Goldfish snack. So, you go ahead and hand him a bowl when he comes in the door. This takes away the opportunity for John to learn the importance of communicating with another person to get his needs met. It eliminates the opportunity to learn the importance of communication, the chance to practice the skill of asking someone for something, and specifically the skill of requesting Goldfish.

As parents or people who know the individual well, it can be much easier and quicker to just give the individual the snack that you know is their favorite, or give them access to the toy that you know they most often want, but this removes the chance for that individual to learn how to communicate. We need to hold back from doing things for individuals or giving things to them. We must instead ensure that they are initiating social interactions as often as possible. When we wait, it gives the individual the opportunity to learn what communication is all about.

“Doing less” often means acting as if we don’t know what the individual wants.  For example, offer John a choice rather than just giving him a snack (“snack or trampoline?”), offer him more than two options (“Goldfish, banana, or raisins?”), or offer him something that you think he doesn’t want (“apple or Goldfish?”). Wait for a request, gesture, vocalization, eye contact, or any other communicative response. Then, give John what he is requesting with that communication. This helps to teach the individual that communication works, and that their effort is worth it!


Teaching life skills

When your 18-year-old is getting ready to head off to college or move out of the house, you might start to think, “I should probably teach him how to do his own laundry,” or wonder, “Will she follow through on showering every day?” For individuals on the spectrum (and all individuals!), we should start thinking about these skills much earlier, so that they have more opportunities to practice.

There are age-appropriate chores that kids of all ages could be learning. Three-year-olds could be putting dirty clothes in their laundry basket, 8-year-olds could be clearing the table after a meal, and 13-year-olds could start doing laundry. All of these skills will help them to keep making progress toward the goal of independent living.

The same is true for personal care tasks, such as brushing teeth, showering, tying shoes, or choosing weather-appropriate clothing. If we wait to teach a 15-year-old how to shower independently, we have missed a vast number of teaching opportunities that may help them to become proficient. Take a few extra minutes when you can to have the individual tie their own shoes, pull up their pants, or brush their hair, even if it isn’t done perfectly.

To teach skills that have multiple steps, such as doing laundry or taking a shower, it is best to start by teaching the first or last step. For example, when teaching laundry, have the individual put their clothes in the machine, then demonstrate the next steps of putting the detergent in, choosing the cycle, and then expect the individual to turn the machine on. As is appropriate, slowly start to teach the individual more steps of the process. For showering, start by teaching the individual to wash the first few body parts in the chain, and slowly start to add the next one and the next one, until they are completing the full routine.


Building self-esteem

Individuals with autism always surprise us. You might hear over and over what they can’t do, or what they are struggling with. But if you give them the chance and the time to practice and learn, you are giving them the opportunity to become independent and autonomous individuals. By expecting more from an earlier age, you will not only see faster growth in skills, but also an increase in self-esteem. Feeling good about yourself comes from feeling proud of all you can do.

Of course, there will always be times as busy parents and people when you have to rush out the door. Sometimes, you will grab whatever you know they want, or you will quickly tie their shoes for them. But when you can, stop and wait. Do less, so they can do more.


Lesley Fraser-Ball, MSW, BCBA, is a member of ASNC’s Clinical Department in the Triangle region and can be reached at lfraser@autismsociety-nc.org.

 ASNC’s Clinical Department staff is composed of PhD and master’s-level licensed psychologists, Board Certified Behavior Analysts, and former special education teachers. We provide individualized intensive consultation using evidence-based practices to support children and adults across the spectrum in home, school, employment, residential and other community-based contexts. We also deliver workshops to professionals on a wide range of topics including but not limited to, strategies to prevent and respond to challenging behaviors, best practices in early intervention, functional communication training, and evidence-based practices in instruction for K-12 students with autism.

To find out more, contact us at 919-390-7242 or clinical@autismsociety-nc.org.

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